Dec 10, 2010 marks 60 years since Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D. became the first person of color to earn the Nobel Prize for Peace. He a mid-20th-Century icon, whom many – far too many – people have forgotten. He earned the Nobel Prize for his work in 1950 as the UN mediator who brought about the armistice between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, all Arab neighbor countries. In Bunche’s era, as much of an institutional insider as he was the “ultimate model Negro,” he was also seen as an “international Uncle Tom. An enigma.” Except for the last item, Mr. Bunche was Sidney Poitier’s diplomatic contemporary.
If you wonder about Black diplomat characters in movies, Secretaries of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, from Oliver Stone’s 2008 film “W,” might pop to mind. But Ralph Bunche probably won’t. Most Americans probably presume that the other two were the first renowned peace-makers of color.
Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D.
Mr. Bunche has been described in many more ways: Mr. UN. Diplomat. Scholar. Professional optimist. Nobel Laureate. Enigma. African-American. Peacemaker. That final duo is the most remarkable here: He was the UN’s first black undersecretary-general, and the first black person to earn a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard.
The dearth of educated, cool-headed, urbane characters of color is a part of a chronic stereotypes that plagues North America’s culture, psyche and attitude: the black thug, or black buck. He is malevolent, barely educated and a committed criminal, often epitomized by at least one character in myriad “keepin’ it real” type homeboy movies, which had a zenith in the 1990s. The black diplomat’s image smashes that stereotype nicely, showing a non-violent, goal-oriented alternative to quashing conflicts. We just rarely consider these characters or their stories.
There are well-known films about Anglo diplomats, even though we rarely see those stories that way:
- Fernando Meirelles’ 2005 film “The Constant Gardener,” adapted from John LeCarré’s novel, about a mid-level Foreign Service officer who investigates and scrutinizes his wife’s suspicious death across real and political borders.
- Robert Harmon’s 2004 made-for-HBO film “IKE: Countdown to D-Day” recounts Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s diplomatic feat in orchestrating the joint force Invasion of Normandy, Operation Overlord.
- Stephen Frears’ 2006 joint European production “The Queen,” portrays the delicate diplomacy between both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair as they dealt with Princess Diana’s death in 1997. It’s a compelling window into the taciturn world of the Royals.
But when you want to consider brown, black and beige diplomats in movies, there are slim pickin’s. Still there are some…engrossing, even atypical choices.
The $64-million question, “why are peacemakers of color, formal or not, rarely movie characters?” is best posed and considered away from here, amongst friends, over a meal. These portrayals don’t simply matter – they’re vital, so that those youngsters of color, who are curious and engaged by questions that cost them their cool points, or their street cred, can see worlds beyond their neighborhoods.
Let’s consider the few, which you can embrace:
Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” recounts Mohandas K. Gandhi’s extraordinarily and exceptionally patient toil toward India’s independence from Britain’s tyranny. Never
mind, that an Anglo actor, Ben Kingsley portrayed Mr. Gandhi… (shaking head – with vigor) He became more than a diplomat, transcending that over more than two generation’s time, to personify a cause.
Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X” recounts Malcolm Little’s equally exceptional transformation: he grew from a Zoot suited hipster, through a period of self-education and ill-informed zeal for Elijah Mohammed’s version Islam, to someone, who after an epiphany in Mecca on a Hajj, commits to conventional Islam. After this, he acted as a peace maker. The film nearly omits this final phase.
Pete Travis’ 2009 British-made film “Endgame” tells a nail-biting story about the African National Congress’ [ANC] Minister of Information, Thabo Mbeki’s, negotiations for Nelson Mandela’s release and toward majority rule in South Africa.
Coming to terms with a South African black majority
As we consider commercial movies, we must visit a difference sort, the documentary, if we want to watch a film about this anniversary man: William Greeves’ 2001 documentary about him for PBS, “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” makes the “Uncle Tom” and enigma questions clear, but also shows why Mr. Bunche deserves to be revered.
“Gandhi” begins with a surprise, Gandhi’s assassination. This convention biopic about this simple man who became much more than simply a man is difficult to compare to the others. The film’s style is very different from, maybe older than, the others. The scenes in “Gandhi” seem to cycle through sequences: he speaks, he then observes the masses’ response and he leads another protest and the government responds. This with increasing tension and peril.
Few people probably consider Malcolm X a diplomat or peace-maker, either in Lee’s epic film, or because of pop culture. With the movie it’s easier to explain: it had to move at a break-neck pace. Investing a mere three hours on a person, who’s formidable and potent legacy was four decades in the making, entails agonizing cuts in order to make a film that people will go to. The film has a “History vs Hollywood” moment, as in the History Channel’s program, because Mr. Lee omits the diplomatic outreach that Mr. X did in the wake of his pilgrimage, and while he was in the Middle East and North Africa.
His fiery, volatile rhetoric fell on conservative Anglos’ ears like merciless blows, while he was never connected with violence (Ossie Davis referred to this in his eulogy), his passion, wit and candor made him seem like he was.
The most potent peace making comes at the mid-point. And it boasts shock and awe: after a member of the Nation of Islam is injured while in police custody, Malcolm leads a march from that police station to a Harlem hospital, where he patiently deals with the police. An NYPD captain [Peter Boyle] confronts him about a mass – what the captain calls a mob – of black Muslims and an angry, raucous bunch behind them. Theirs is a professional, but brusque confrontation. After Malcolm dismisses his men, the captain declares, “that’s too much power for one man to have!” Ironic.
While the last 45-mins of “Malcolm X” takes place during and after the Hajj, all the peace making that Lee’s break-neck pace gives us was a news conference. He candidly answers questions about bringing charges against the United States to the United Nations.
Thabo Mbeki sits among the minority, asking that his people not be treated as one
The negotiations in “Endgame” between Mr. Mbeki [Chiwetel Ejiofor] and Prof. Willie Esterhuyse [William Hurt] were scenes of suspense without pyrotechnics, other than rhetoric. But that rhetoric held two people’s rights, freedoms and sources of pride at stake, or maybe for political ransom. In reality, while the film emphasized Mbeki and Esterhuyse’s coming-together, it also suggests that two other supporting personalities were at least as potent as they were: Willem de Klerk, Pres. de Klerk’s brother, and Michael Young.
In a YouTube video Mr. Ejiofor describes, a minute into it, how the director, Mr. Meirelles, chose to exploit the political thriller genre in order to grab viewers to what might otherwise be a piece about talking heads. This is a quiet and cerebral experience that demands viewers’ patience.
Even though there are three titles and three exceptional films that show brown and beige men as peace makers, the most recent one, and closest to feature-length, is also tells the most direct engrossing story of peace making work. “Endgame” is that. Far fewer people will sit down for a three-hour film experience. Patience is a quickly evaporating trait. But a political thriller that lets viewers peer through an oft-guarded window can win viewers.